Review: Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt

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This week the Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt USB DAC was in our test room for a review dedicated to high resolution audio. After the Audioquest DragonFly Black and the Audioquest DragonFly Red DACs, the American manufacturer has expanded its DragonFly range with this ultra-compact DAC in USB flash drive format. Sold for €299, the DragonFly Cobalt works with computers (Mac, PC), iPhones and iPads, as well as Android mobile devices (with an adapter). It handles PCM audio files (up to 24-bit/96kHz) and is compatible with the MQA standard, which is available on the Tidal online music platform.

The Audioquest DragonFly DAC and the Focal Clear headphones.

Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt: the brand

Founded in the United States in 1980 by Bill Low, Audioquest has forged itself a solid reputation by manufacturing high-quality audio and video cables. Audioquest’s research focuses on the nature and configuration of conductors as well as cable sheath, which influences the “sound”. The American brand also enriched its catalogue by developing a range of self-powered USB DACs named DragonFly, of which the Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt is the latest addition.

The Audioquest DragonFly Black and DragonFly Red DACs.

Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt: packaging & accessories

The Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt USB DAC comes in a box (21 x 15.5 x 3cm) decorated with a dragonfly. Inside the box are the Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt DAC, the Audioquest DragonTail USB-C to USB-A adapter cable and a small black pouch. There is also a user guide, the warranty certificate and two advertising leaflets offering a trial offer for the online music services Qobuz and Tidal.

The main content of the box is the Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt DAC, the Audioquest DragonTail cable (USB-C to USB-A) and a small leather pouch.

Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt: presentation

After the Audioquest DragonFly Black and Audioquest DragonFly Red DACs, the American manufacturer has completed its DragonFly range with the Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt DAC. This small device shaped like a USB flash drive features all of the electronics necessary to convert digital audio files to an analog signal. In practice, it converts digital music played on a computer or a smartphone in order to stream it in optimal quality as an analog signal to a pair of hi-fi headphones or a stereo amplifier, for example. It can be used with music stored on the device’s internal memory or on a server (NAS) and shared over the local network. It may also be used with online music services such as Deezer, Spotify, Qobuz, Tidal and Amazon Music.

The Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt DAC and the Audioquest DragonTail cable (USB-C to USB-A).

Design

Here are the new features added to the Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt DAC in comparison to the Audioquest DragonFly Red:

  • An ESS Sabre ES9038Q2M chip
  • Improved power supply filtering to reduce external interference
  • A more powerful and energy-efficient Microchip PIC3MX274 microcontroller (more data processed simultaneously, the battery of the associated mobile device is preserved) 
The Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt DAC and the Audioquest DragonTail cable (USB-C to USB-A).

The Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt USB DAC uses the ESS Sabre ES9038Q2M chip which is none other than the mobile version of the ESS Sabre ES9038PRO conversion chip. The latter can be found in the Atoll DAC300 DAC and the Cowon Plenue L and Astell&Kern KANN Cube DAPs, for example. The ES9038Q2M convertor allows the Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt DAC to handle PCM audio files up to 24-bit/96kHz. 

The Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt DAC’s USB port is asynchronous. Data flow is regulated and stabilized by the DAC’s single ultra-low-jitter clock. The latter operates all of the ES9038Q2M convertor and microcontroller’s functions, ensuring extremely clear high resolution playback.

Key specifications

PCM compatible up to 24-bit/96kHz
Sample rate LED indicator:
– 44.1kHz (green)
– 48kHz (blue)
– 88.2kHz (amber)
– 96kHz (magenta)
– MQA (purple)
Minimum headphone impedance rating: 12 ohms
Maximum headphone output level: 80mW/32 ohms

The Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt DAC comes with an Audioquest DragonTail USB-C to USB-A adaptor cable.

When green, the dragonfly indicates a 44.1kHz audio stream.

Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt: test conditions

The Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt DAC, paired with the Sennheiser Momentum headphones. The Audioquest DragonTail cable is connected to the smartphone’s USB-C port.

First, we connected the Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt DAC to the USB port of a PC running Windows 10. We then connected it to a smartphone running Android 9 using the Audioquest DragonTail adaptor cable provided. Our listening sessions were carried out with the Focal Clear headphones and the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless headphones (in wired mode), as well as with the FiiO FH7 Hi-Res Audio certified earphones.

The Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt DAC and the FiiO FH7 earphones.

We were able to listen to CD and Studio quality files with the Qobuz app on Windows 10. Note: to enjoy the best possible sound quality, remember to set the audio output mode to Wasapi Exclusive in the Qobuz app.

The Qobuz app for Windows lets you choose how the audio stream is sent to the Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt DAC.

We also used the Foobar2000 freeware with the Asio4All plugin to benefit from bit perfect playback by bypassing the Windows audio mixer. We were therefore able to listen to FLAC HD files up to 24-bit/96kHz.

Hi-res audio playback on the PC via Foobar2000 with the Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt DAC.

We also listened to Qobuz and high resolution audio files on an Android smartphone. However, we had to download a third-party music player app from the Playstore so that we weren’t restricted by Android’s limitations in terms of audio processing (16-bit/48kHz). Without the app, the little dragonfly on the Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt DAC stays blue, no matter the resolution of the file being played…

Via the Qobuz app, the music player announces 24/96 resolution, but the LED is still blue: with Android, audio is limited to 48kHz.
Thanks to the music player app downloaded from the Playstore, the Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt DAC can be used to its full potential.

Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt: listening impressions

We were very impressed by the music played by the Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt USB DAC. The similarity with the DragonFly Red is evident, but the Cobalt seems to go that bit further, especially when revealing the micro-information in high resolution recordings.

With audio files at 96kHz, the LED isn’t really magenta… but the sound quality is definitely present.

The soundstage was still very wide and deftly layered. The sound signature was clear, with extremely precise and soaring highs, but always retained the overall balanced that was characteristic of its predecessor. The lower end of the spectrum was never frustrating, with deep, expressive, and very clean bass.

Track after track, the Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt DAC showcased obvious musicality. While it was very comfortable expressing the richness of high resolution audio formats (24-bit/96kHz maximum), this USB DAC also handled standard quality and CD quality files well, which it reproduced very smoothly. It had no trouble driving the various headphones and earphones we used. Its power reserve means you can even consider driving relatively demanding headphones…

Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt: compared to…

Audioquest DragonFly Red: the ESS ES9038Q2M chip gives the Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt DAC a definite edge. The soundstage is even more well-defined, highly detailed and packed with micro-information thanks to an excellent signal-to-noise ratio. The clarity and balance that impressed us in the Red is present here, but has been improved.

Chord Electronics Mojo: four years older than the DragonFly Cobalt, the Mojo was impressive then and it’s still impressive now thanks to consistent serenity and precision, even with poor recordings. It also features its own battery so it won’t drain your smartphone’s battery when listening on the go. 

At half the price, the DragonFly Cobalt is admittedly less versatile: it is limited to PCM files up to 24/96 whereas the Mojo can go up to 32/768 and also handles DSD files. However, the Cobalt is more compact and its very reasonable energy consumption makes up for the absence of a battery.

Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt: conclusion

With the DragonFly Cobalt, Audioquest is a step closer to creating the ultimate portable DAC. The Cobalt isn’t perfect, as it is limited to 24/96 PCM, but it is still very successful. It manages to better its predecessor without losing what made the Red appealing. The sound is still as balanced but is richer and more detailed. The restitution is clear, well-defined, punchy when it needs to be, and never tiring.

Regarding energy consumption in portable mode with a smartphone, one hour of high resolution playback with a One Plus 6 running Android 9 (Qobuz via the USB Audio Player PRO app using a WiFi connection) used 10% of the battery. For the same playback time in the Qobuz app without the Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt DAC, the battery dropped by 6%. The Cobalt is evidently very energy efficient.

What we liked

  • The balanced and beautifully clear sound
  • The spacious soundstage
  • The level of detail
  • The intense and expressive lows

What we would have liked

  • Compatibility with 24-bit/192kHz and DSD files

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